Kate Bowler’s Blessed is the best history of the American prosperity gospel. Here she explains the intellectual and theological roots of the prosperity gospel in the “New Thought” movement.
New Thought represents a cluster of thinkers and metaphysical ideas that emerged in the 1880s as the era’s most powerful vehicle of mind-power. Three aspects of New Thought became foundational to the twentieth century’s views of mind-power. First, it assumed essential unity between God and humanity, declaring that separation from the divine was only a matter of degree. The American religious terrain, plowed deep by the soulful individualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was fertile soil for a high anthropology (which is to say, an optimistic theology of human capacity.) As many New Thought authors worked inside a Christian framework, they explored “salvation” not as an act imposed from above by God, but rather an act of drawing out humanity’s potential.
Second, New Thought taught that the world should be reimagined as thought rather than substance. The spiritual world formed absolute reality, while the material world was the mind’s projection. Unlike Christian Science, New Thought never denied the reality of the material world, but saw it as contingent upon the mind. Right standing with the divine required sacred alignment, a mystical connection that won the historian Sydney Ahlstrom’s famous label of “harmonial religion.”
Third, New Thought argued that people shared in God’s power to create by means of thought. People shaped their own worlds by their thinking, just as God had created the world using thought. Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts yielded negative situations. These three features—a high anthropology, the priority of spiritual reality, and the generative power of positive thought—formed the main presuppositions of the developing mind-power.
In its infancy, New Thought was largely preoccupied with healing, the same issue that consumed Christian Science and the wider American culture. Like hydropathy, Grahamism, Adventism, homeopathy, and the burgeoning faith cure movement, New Thought offered a religious alternative to the often harsh regimen of standard medical treatments. Bloodletting, mercury-laced purgatives, and arsenic tonics formed common “cures,” making orthodox medicine a potentially risky treatment. Warren Felt Evans, New Thought’s first author, promulgated the physical benefits of this therapeutic brand of metaphysics with the publication of The Mental Cure in 1869. Evans, as a practicing healer and systematizer of New Thought, sought to explain illness as an imbalance resulting from wrong thinking. William James labeled these buoyant ideas, “the religion of healthy-mindedness.”
These gospels of health stood on one side of a blurry line between Christian metaphysics and metaphysical Christianity. One prioritized the method of mind-power, while the other concentrated on its relationship to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
As with so many types of aberrant theology, the prosperity gospel is dangerous precisely because it takes biblical themes to non-biblical extremes. It is not hard to demonstrate biblically that God wants an “abundant life” for his followers. But when that abundance gets defined in worldly terms, through the lenses of pseudo-Christian therapeutic psychology, we have the makings of a theological disaster.